EducationLetters

Old School versus New School?

This is the prepared text of a presentation to the General Seminar commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the University in Exile.

In his original email to the faculty panelists, Will Milberg asked (and I quote) “what is the significance of the University in Exile for the New School of tomorrow?” (and not, as our panel poster puts it, What is the significance of the University in Exile for the New School for Social Research of tomorrow — a more self-referential, and subtly insular question).

Following up on the incisive remarks of Robin and Janet, I’m inclined to address Will’s original question, and to be even more deliberately provocative, closing with some pointed questions about who we really are, and what the New School might yet become.

First of all, I want to remind us all of a salient tension that has marked our existence for eighty years — a tension, perhaps even a contradiction, between the New School for the Social Research as it existed from 1919 until quite recently, and “the University in Exile” as it quickly evolved after its founding in 1933.

The New School at its inception had been a truly radical experiment: there were no tenured faculty, no organized departments. It was a brave experiment in adult continuing education. And through the 1940s and 1950s, the original New School — which WAS, let us recall, THE New School for Social Research, not the Graduate Faculty that grew out of the University in Exile — this original New School for Social Research remained a preferred site for musicians and visual and performing artists active in the downtown arts scene. In short, the original New School for Social Research was for decades a hub of creativity and real experimentation that brought together adult education, artistic innovation, and serious social research.

The University in Exile, by contrast, quickly became in some ways quintessentially Old School. After all, it was conservative by design, a throwback, an exercise in rescuing several previously existing but jeopardized traditions of social inquiry. Soon enough, professors with tenure at the Graduate Faculty were teaching courses and conducting research in departments organized according to a German research model from the 19th century, never mind the putatively “radical” content of some (certainly not all) of this teaching and research.

As a result, ever since the University in Exile was awkwardly grafted onto the original New School for Social Research, our institution as a whole has been impaled on the horns of a dilemma:

Should the New School as a whole strive to renew the bold experimentation of the original venture — or to double down on the old school influx of 1933, by creating a more conventionally structured modern research university? Needless to say, the subsequent addition of Parsons, Mannes, Drama and Jazz to the mix — not to mention the creation of Lang, a thriving and idiosyncratic liberal arts college — has only deepened uncertainty about the larger institution’s mission — indeed, in recent years, it has begged the question I believe of whether our institution as a whole might be in fact less than the sum of its parts.

Hence the terrible ambiguity of the significance of the University in Exile for the future of the New School as an institution for the 21st century.

Is it liable to be a conservative brake on innovation and experimentation, its reactionary tendencies barely masked by strident professions of embattled faith in forms of “heterodoxy” and critical theory widely taught at many other mainstream universities around the world?

Or can the faculty members of our old-fashioned disciplinary degree programs productively engage in reimagining another kind of experimental institution for an era in which novelty and “the new” as values in themselves are, and ought to be, sharply contested?

Those are my pointed questions.

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James Miller

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